At the end of my two years at Oxford, where I'd completed a second B.A. in English, I moved almost immediately to Idaho Falls, Idaho to work at a daily newspaper. The Tetons rose up to the east. Barley silos painted to resemble beer cans dotted farmland, even though most people abstained from alcohol for religious reasons. To the west lay the Arco Desert, home to the first town in the world to be lit with electricity from a nuclear power plant. To the north was Rigby where Philo Farnsworth came up with the concept for the vacuum tube (a revolution for television) when he was just a high school student. Nearby Ashton boasted it was the seed potato capital of the world. Tall silver-sided buses snaked through the town and the surrounding communities, carrying workers out to the Site, a vast high security complex for storing spent nuclear fuel and undertaking nuclear energy research. People told me that Idaho Falls had the highest percentage of nuclear physicists of any place. They also said the fastest way to get service in a restaurant was to light a cigarette and order a drink. I have no evidence that either was true, but I like to believe both.
What I can tell you is that moving to Idaho Falls from Oxford was a bit like entering the witness protection program. Because all my street cred came from being a Boise native, this is what I talked up when I called school district superintendents to grill them about budgets and bond levies, bilingual education and school prayer. I did not dare talk about Oxford for fear of appearing arrogant. I didn't talk about literature because no one much cared.
With the $320 a week I earned (plus whatever I got in mileage reimbursement for driving around eastern Idaho to cover stories) I rented a studio apartment a block from the train tracks. Until I bought a futon, I slept on the floor. I drove a second hand Subaru that I had purchased with a $2,000 loan from my parents. I drank at Debbie's Brothers where $2 bought you a plastic cup and all the Budweiser you could guzzle between 5 and 6 p.m.
I had worked at a newspaper only once before, during the previous summer, where I had the luxury of writing features. Now that I was a beat reporter, I had to file stories on deadline. This often meant arriving in the newsroom at 6 a.m. so I could craft articles on school board meetings that I had attended the night before. A painfully slow writer with no grasp of the basics of journalism, I couldn't tell a lede from a lead. I knew what a pyramid was, but an inverted pyramid? And what did this have to do with journalism? It took me months to stop putting two spaces after periods and remember to write out the numbers one through ten. My articles never appeared on the bulletin board where the managing editor hung the pieces she liked. In fact, she told me once, I was frankly a disappointment. I was a Rhodes Scholar after all. Wasn't I supposed to wow her?
Needless to say, this was a humbling time. It was also excellent training for my vocation as a fiction writer. After a life of overachieving, I learned that being average didn't have to diminish my pleasure in whatever I was trying to do or learn - nor did it change who I fundamentally was. When I faced even more ego-bruising failure - when every graduate school in creative writing save one rejected me, or my first collection of stories made the rounds for months and never got published - I decided that my love of writing was more integral to my sense of self and well-being than my need for external approval (though, like most, I certainly appreciate validation).
Writing fiction often feels like exploring a place you think you know, but don't. The longer you stay, the stranger it becomes until finally - after countless days or months or years - the contours of the terrain start to become recognizable. You draw yourself a map. You plot a route through. Then another. The landmarks mean something. Certain images and events from my reporting days still tug at me: the young man standing at the edge of a group of students huddled in prayer right before the graduation ceremony of a high school embroiled in a school prayer lawsuit; the girl at the Miss Idaho Beauty Pageant who told me her father was going to have a cataract when he saw her parade across the stage in her swimming suit, the lonely dirt roads that I ran in the foothills of the Tetons. Right before I moved from Idaho Falls to New York City, someone left a beautiful Christmas fir on my front porch. Whoever offered me this gift remains a mystery.